WASHINGTON - The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is making cancer patients more vulnerable than ever. In addition to being confronted with two deadly diseases, patients are less likely to seek treatment for their cancer out of fear of the novel coronavirus. On top of that, according to the Inova Schar Cancer Institute's Dr. John Deeken, the death rate from COVID-19 in cancer patients is exceedingly high.
Deeken spoke with FOX 5 Wednesday to discuss research that suggests the COVID-19 pandemic may be delaying cancer diagnosis and treatment. He says there was a substantial decrease in screenings, visits, therapy, and surgeries for cancer earlier this year at the start of the pandemic. "We did see those trends, especially in the springtime – in May and June – when a lot of screenings weren't done," Deeken told FOX 5. "Patients weren't getting mammograms for breast cancer or seeing their dermatologist for skin cancer. We saw a significant drop in those newly diagnosed cancer patients coming in. It's picked up since that time but we're still worried that patients aren't coming in for the screening they should be getting and deserve."
According to a report from the American Society of Clinical Oncology, screenings for breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancers were lower by 85%, 75%, 74%, and 56%, respectively during the peak of the pandemic in April.
"Some cancers are diagnosed at screening – some like the common cancers – colon cancer, breast cancer. Sometimes patients have a symptom that brings it to medical attention," Deeken continued. "Too often I think right now patients are sort of putting that off. They have a new lump in their neck, they have a persistent cough, they notice blood in their stool and they're not seeking medical attention for that because of COVID. So that again is delaying the diagnosis."
Deeken added that many patients that do come in have a higher stage of cancer because of delays. "For a cancer that's growing – every month matters," he said. "The cure rates go down every time a tumor has a chance to grow and spread."
Deeken says that one of the safest places to be right now is in a hospital or physician's office because of the increase in safety measures that have been put into place since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The doctor added that there has been a much higher mortality rate of patients dying of COVID-19 who have cancer. "About 1 in 6 cancer patients who get COVID will pass away from COVID because of that infection. It is especially important for families who have loved ones who have gone through cancer treatment -- are going through cancer treatment -- to be especially careful in terms of mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding crowds because the death rate from COVID in our cancer patients is exceedingly high."
With more successful treatments and a potential vaccine on the horizon, Deeken says there is hope. "The light is coming at the end of the tunnel for us to get through this but it's important for us to stay safe in the next few months as we continue down this journey and keep everyone safe in the short-term." Deeken says a new cancer screening and prevention center will open on the campus of the Inova Center for Personalized Health in the fall of 2021.